• The Sicangu Lakota Oyate, the Native nation living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota, released 100 American bison onto part of an 11,300-hectare (28,000-acre) pasture.
  • The project is a collaboration between the Sicangu Oyate’s economic arm, REDCO, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and WWF.
  • Over the next five years, the leaders of the Wolakota Buffalo Range project hope to expand the herd to 1,500 buffalo, which would make it the largest owned by a Native nation.

The bison circled four times around the holding pen, before the lead animals took them into the 3,400-hectare (8,500-acre) pasture, their new home on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota. The thunder of 400 hooves as they crossed through the gate gave way to the whir of cameras and ululations from the crowd, perhaps 20 people gathered to see the return of the bison.

Out in their new pasture, the animals loped, moving in unison as if one organism. Then, they slowed and wheeled to the left against a backdrop of a few lonely trees on a blanket of tan grass stretching to distant hills. They seem to fit into the landscape, as if they’d always been there and always would be.

It was land where their ancestors had run for thousands of years, where they had been central to the success of the Great Plains’ nations, anchoring their cultures, prescribing their movements and filling their bellies.

“Bringing them home. That’s what it meant,” said Monica Terkildsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota and WWF’s tribal liaison on the neighboring Pine Ridge Reservation, who was at the Oct. 30 release.

“You just have a peaceful feeling,” Terkildsen said. “That means that you don’t have to worry about hunger, you don’t have to worry about inadequate housing … all these worries that come with oppression and poverty.”

At their peak, an estimated 30 million bison grazed North America’s Great Plains, the region that drapes the center of the continent, from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. They were a keystone species in the vast ecosystem and a foundational food source for more than a dozen Native American nations living there. But that was before a concerted campaign, backed by the U.S. government, to eliminate the bison in the mid- to late 1800s all but succeeded — a genocidal swipe aimed at bringing these largely nomadic cultures to heel and opening up the West to Euro-American expansion, farming and settlement. By 1889, only about 1,000 bison remained, many in zoos or privately owned herds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The disappearance of North America’s largest land animal forever changed the makeup of these societies and the landscape itself. Farms and fenced-off ranches subsumed what had seemed to be a limitless prairie. Game disappeared, and with it the nomadic way of life of the Lakota (also known as the Teton Sioux) and other Native nations. By the turn of the century, most of the Plains Nations had been forced onto reservation land, into a foreign and sedentary way of life that decimated these societies. Today, nearly 150 years after the “Indian Wars” of the late 19th century, poverty, unemployment, drug use, depression and suicide still hamper reservation communities at rates much higher than in the broader U.S. population.

But with this return of the buffalo to Rosebud Reservation, home of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, proponents of the Wolakota Buffalo Range project hope to turn back that trend. The Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), the Sicangu Lakota Oyate’s economic division, is leading the effort. It has signed a 15-year lease for nearly 11,300 hectares (28,000 acres) of former cattle pasture on the reservation. And in the next five years, with the help of WWF and the U.S. National Park Service, they hope to grow the herd to 1,500 animals, which would make it the largest owned by a Native nation in the country, Wizipan Little Elk, REDCO’s CEO, told Mongabay in May.

A buffalo skull sits on the plains where a group of people welcomed the bison back to the Rosebud reservation. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.

As a young boy, Little Elk said, visiting a buffalo herd on the Rosebud reservation in the 1980s had been transformative, and at 19, he pledged to bring his people and the buffalo back into closer contact.

Since his childhood, cattle brought in to grazed leased parcels of land have replaced bison on Rosebud land. Other reservations, however, including Pine Ridge and Fort Peck Indian Reservation in the neighboring state of Montana, had begun to bring back their own herds. The Lakota see the buffalo as their kin, so the presence of herds at places like Fort Peck is seen as an opportunity to reforge that cultural bond, as well as a potential boost to the reservation economies.

“The sacred relationship between Native nation communities and the buffalo is part of a shared story of strength, resilience and economic revitalization,” Little Elk, the architect of the Wolakota project, said in a statement from WWF. “The arrival of the buffalo marks a new beginning for the Sicangu Oyate, where cultural, ecological and economic priorities are equally celebrated and supported and are of great benefit to our community.”

The bison released on the Rosebud pasture in October came from Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The move was part of the Bison Conservation Initiative run by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), which oversees the park service. It aims to build up “large, wild, connected, genetically diverse and healthy bison herds.” Providing “surplus” animals to Native Peoples is one way the initiative’s backers hope to continue growing the animal’s population while also helping to reestablish that cultural connection with Plains Nations.

Bison were once so numerous that they “blackened” the Great Plains of North America. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.
Bison were once so numerous that they “blackened” the Great Plains of North America. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.

Genetics are a concern for the American bison (Bison bison) because of the relentless hunting of the 19th century. Hunters, driven by government bounties, killed as many as 5,000 animals a day for years at a time. Since then, crossbreeding with cattle, though no longer widely practiced, diluted the bison genome in all but a few isolated herds.

The park service considers bison that share 2% or less of their genes with cattle as genetically pure, including the 100 sent to Rosebud in October, said Dennis Jorgensen, a wildlife biologist and WWF’s bison initiative coordinator. Still, the small size of most herds remains a concern. All bison alive today are descended from the 1,000 that survived at the end of the 19th century, pushing the species through what scientists call a genetic bottleneck. That means they have a relatively small pool of genetic diversity to draw from, especially for a species that had evolved to number in the tens of millions.

The reproductively prolific bison also have relatively limited areas of land into which they can expand, Jorgensen added.

“If they are fenced in,” he added, “they are going to fill that landscape.”

That means the species’ existence today remains threatened — not by hunters as they once were, but by the perils of declining genetic diversity and the threat of inbreeding. Rather than sell the animals or send them to market, the DOI’s bison initiative looks to build up numbers and genetic diversity by providing the animals to Native nations.

The new herd, with animals from Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt national parks, lopes onto their new home on Rosebud Indian Reservation. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.
The new herd, with animals from Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt national parks, lopes onto their new home on Rosebud Indian Reservation. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.

Bison and prosperity

Bison herds on the Plains once reached almost incomprehensible numbers. Stephen E. Ambrose writes in his book, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, that a U.S. military officer traveling through the Great Plains in the 1830s reported “as far as the eye could reach the country seemed blackened by innumerable herds.”

True ecosystem engineers, restive with sharp hooves, and weighing a metric ton (2,200 pounds) or more, bison sculpted the seemingly featureless prairie into microhabitats that supported countless birds, mammals and reptiles. Jorgensen said that ornithologists have noted the superlative bird diversity on Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian reservation, which has had a herd of bison since the 1970s. The restoration of those dynamics, beginning with the Wolakota range, is one of the goals of returning the bison to the landscape.

But the Sicangu Oyate, too, need the bison as much as any species, Monica Terkildsen said.

“It’s reestablishing the ecosystem relationships and restoring not only bison to the land, but what they’re going to bring back to the people,” she said. “If the bison are strong, the people will be strong.”

The U.S. National Park Service provided the bison to the Rosebud reservation as part of its Bison Conservation Initiative, meant to create larger herds and increase the species' genetic diversity. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.
The U.S. National Park Service provided the bison to the Rosebud reservation as part of its Bison Conservation Initiative, meant to create larger herds and increase the species’ genetic diversity. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.

In the 1800s, the people of the Plains Nations were among the tallest people on record at the time, a fact scientists attribute in large part to the presence of the bison herds. Anthropologist Joseph Prince and economist Richard Steckel mined anthropological data collected by Franz Boas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily from Sioux and Crow men. They found that the average Plains First Nations man was a centimeter or two (0.4 to 0.8 inches) taller than other Euro-Americans at that time. That meant he would have towered 6 to 12 centimeters (2.4 to 4.7 inches) over the average 19th century European.

“We link this extraordinary achievement to a rich and varied diet, modest disease loads other than epidemics, a remarkable facility at reorganization following demographic disasters, and egalitarian principles of operation,” Prince and Steckel wrote in a 1998 article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

At the same time, many other Native nations without the ready access to bison who lived in places like the current southwestern United States and Central America were, on average, much shorter than European-descended Americans.

“It seems clear that the Plains tribes, particularly those in the mid to northern latitudes, had adequate protein and energy from buffalo, and that this diet typically reached the poor,” the team wrote.

What’s more, the most successful buffalo-hunting peoples, the Lakota among them, probably traded hides, bison-derived tools and meat with other groups in places where the buffalo hunting wasn’t as good but who may have farmed vegetables and other crops. That exchange likely provided the Sioux with the nutrients necessary for their chart-topping height, in addition to the wild berries, onions, turnips and other produce they gathered from the plains.

The Wolakota Buffalo Range project aims to grow the Rosebud herd to 1,500 animals over the next five years. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.
The Wolakota Buffalo Range project aims to grow the Rosebud herd to 1,500 animals over the next five years. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.

More recent analyses led by economist Donna Feir suggest that “bison-reliant societies were once the richest in North America, with living standards comparable to or better than their average European contemporaries.”

But that all changed after the loss of the bison, Jorgensen said.

“When the bison were wiped out, tribal people were starving. They were forced to accept rations,” he added. “They were now no longer self-sufficient.”

Feir and her colleagues wrote that the Plains Nations went from being the tallest in the world in the 19th century to among the shortest, and they earned significantly less money per capita than members of other Native societies.

“When the bison were eliminated, the resource that underpinned these societies vanished in an historical blink of the eye,” the team wrote. “[T]he loss of the bison had substantial and persistent negative effects for the Native Americans who relied on them.

“We suggest that federal Indian policy that limited out-migration from reservations and restricted employment opportunities to crop-based agriculture, coupled with lasting psychological effects, prevented these nations from recovering in the long-run,” they added.

Hunting diminished bison numbers to around 1,000 by the late 1800s. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.
Hunting diminished bison numbers to around 1,000 by the late 1800s. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.

Indeed, Jorgensen pointed out that 46% of tribal lands in the United States are controlled by people who aren’t tribal members. He said it’s no coincidence that reservations are food-insecure, with the peoples of the Great Plains some of the worst off.

But the Wolakota project brings hope, Jorgensen said.

“I really think that the return of the buffalo creates an opportunity for the fortunes and the prosperity of both to rise again.”

Peace, at last

Little Elk told Mongabay in May that they hope to develop a market for pasture-raised bison meat. They could also sell licenses for buffalo hunts, and the herd could attract tourists.

But for those benefits to take hold, it will require the engagement of the reservation community, Jorgensen said in a follow-up email to Mongabay.

“[T]his work involves not only ecology but social science and is as much about community development as it is about the restoration of a species,” he said. “If the efforts to restore bison are not based on community values, needs, and aspirations it is far less likely that the conservation outcomes will be sustained.”

Crews prepare for the Oct. 30 release of the bison. Image © Stephanie Morgan.
Crews prepare for the Oct. 30 release of the bison. Image © Stephanie Morgan.

WWF’s role is a supporting member of the cast, Jorgensen said, working on ecological and genetic studies and helping find the required funding, estimated at $4 million for the first five years, to keep the project running. At its core, the aim is to allow the Sicangu Oyate to find their own path, a freedom that was stripped away more than a century ago along with the buffalo.

“Self-determination, in part, means that the tribes can decide what they want to do with the bison and when,” Jorgensen said. “Giving them a live bison means that they get to decide if they want to sell those animals, whether they want to just allow those animals to live out their life on tribal lands, or whether they want to harvest those animals.”

For Terkildsen, placing the bison again at the center of their lives, however much the world has changed since their ancestors followed the great herds, is critical to their future success.

“If the bison bring us peace, then we’re no longer a hungry people,” she said. “If you have peace, you can dream big.”

The expansive Wolakota Buffalo Range. Image © Stephanie Morgan.
The expansive Wolakota Buffalo Range. Image © Stephanie Morgan.

Terkildsen said the bison’s four circular charges in the pen before taking to the pasture was a promising sign. For the Lakota and many other Native American nations, the number 4 holds special significance. Their medicine wheel symbolizes Earth itself and the wisdom of the universe. It’s typically a simple circle with two lines crossing in the center, its four colors — white, red, yellow and black — signifying the cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. Each also represents a season in the calendar and in life.

“I was really happy because to me, it meant that what we … were communicating with them and they still recognize that communication, that the teaching we learned from them a long time ago was still intact,” Terkildsen said. “That, to me, was really amazing.”

She also said that releasing the herd onto the Rosebud pasture should only be a first step.

“Let’s not stop with this one,” she added. “Let’s continue as tribal nations moving forward and restoring bison back onto the lands.”

Banner image of a bison in the holding pen © Clay Bolt/WWF. (tk0021) 

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citations:

Feir, D., Gillezeau, R., & Jones, M. (2017). The slaughter of the bison and reversal of fortunes on the Great Plains. Economics Department Discussion Paper (University of Victoria), 74.

Prince, J., & Steckel, R. (1998). The tallest in the world: Native Americans of the Great Plains in the nineteenth century. doi:10.3386/h0112

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